— Inner Voices —

Rossdale & Reconciliation

Can the “Flats” development truly commemorate our indigenous history?

I want to believe Mayor Don Iveson’s commitment to Truth and Reconciliation. I want to believe that, as an “Honorary Witness,” he will be responsible “along with [his] fellow leaders to be the keepers of history.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 12.46.15 AMI want to believe his words. But more than believing, I want to see this commitment in the redevelopment of an area with vital links to Edmonton’s Indigenous history.

Since as far back as 8,000 C.E., Rossdale Flats has been a gathering site for the Blackfoot, Assiniboine, Cree and Metis. Here, they traded, practised rituals, performed the Goose Dance and the Sun Dance. Here, they assembled themselves for easy access to the North Saskatchewan River.

Rossdale has a rich history as evidenced by the Rossdale Flats Aboriginal Oral Histories Project, a study, completed in 2004, that revealed a living memory of Edmonton’s lesser-known and lesser-celebrated Indigenous history.

Indigenous Peoples, vital to the fur trade, frequently camped just outside the walls of Fort Edmonton. The Metis called it Fort-des-Prairies; the Cree, Amiskwaskahegan (Beaver Hills House). Fort Augustus II and Edmonton House II, both critical fur trading posts, were part of Rossdale at one time. After the floods of 1830, the fort was relocated to higher ground near the site of the present day Alberta Legislature. However, Indigenous Peoples continued to live in Rossdale trading furs, building York boats and transporting whitefish to the fort. Remnants of Red River cart trails are present today, in the tangle of streets through the river valley.

Some of those early inhabitants of the Flats are buried in the Rossdale Cemetery (also known as Old Fort Edmonton Cemetery), and some of their descendants still reside in Edmonton. I am one. Senior Gabriel Dumont, my Metis ancestor, who worked as a free trader and guide with the Hudson’s Bay Co. and North West Company, camped on the flats before guiding missionary M. L’abbé Jean-Baptiste Thibault to the first Catholic mission in Western Canada (Lac. Ste. Anne).

Many descendants of the Papaschase Band, who illegally surrendered their reserve and were forcefully transferred to other bands such as Enoch and Saddle Lake, are also keenly aware of their ancestors buried there. Joy Sinclair, founder of the Sun and Moon Visionaries Gallery in the old Donald Ross School in Rossdale, has several generations of family who were instrumental in establishing the fort buried here too.

Until last May, when Sun and Moon Visionaries  was effectively defunded and closed, I gathered with world-class ceramic artists, crafters, painters, dancers, musicians and writers there, offering art workshops to Indigenous Peoples. We lamented having to leave Rossdale and our ancestors behind. Now I wonder what the future holds without the presence of another aboriginal community hub.

Indigenous history is dependent on the awareness and goodwill of an industry that has the power to further wipe it out with the very instruments that colonized Edmonton.

Through its Aboriginal Relations office, the City cites “ongoing consultation and engagement with First Nations and Metis communities.” But who can claim representation of these communities when few Indigenous Peoples and no organizations actually reside in these gentrified areas, and when they don’t have a stake in the shape, design and vision of Rossdale?

Back in 2011, Calder Bateman, on behalf of the City, made a laudable effort to engage 100 invited Aboriginal participants for feedback on the Epcor site’s future. It’s also commendable of the West Rossdale Urban Design Plan to cite as one of its strategic priorities “[to] commemorate and respect thousands of years of history, with the designation of historical places and structures.”

But how influential can Indigenous Peoples be without economic claim and land ownership in the neighbourhood? Without economic leverage, Indigenous history is dependent on the awareness and goodwill of an industry that has the power to further wipe it out with the very instruments that colonized Edmonton.

Instead of a tourist-seeking canal that’s been proposed by some in the private sector and celebrated by high-profile boosters, I want a culturally appropriate facility for local Indigenous Peoples to gather here and continue the tradition of sharing knowledge, language and arts. A place on land significant to not only Indigenous history, but to the very origins of this city.

I hope in their wisdom, the community advisory committee and design planners take a wider view of history than the pervasive Canadian narrative that forgets Indigenous use and occupation.

Marilyn Dumont authored The Pemmican Eaters. A nationally acclaimed poet, she’s served as a writer-
in-residence at numerous institutions, including the Edmonton Public Library. She lives in McCauley.